HOUSTON—For nearly half a century, Rev. Jesse Jackson has ranked as America’s most ubiquitous civil rights crusader, working alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., founding Operation PUSH, demanding equality from corporate America and twice making credible runs for the presidency. Now a younger African-American leader has won the Democratic nomination, and many Americans wonder whether that means the civil rights movement has finally achieved its goals. Last month, Jackson, 66, sat down with the Chicago Tribune for a conversation. An edited transcript follows.
It seems there is a shift going on within the civil rights movement away from the old-guard groups such as the NAACP and Operation PUSH and toward blogs and Internet-based groups. Would you agree?
No. New technology does not change the land-based organizations. It just allows you to cover more ground more quickly.
New communications are good for hot-button issues. They strengthen mobilization, not organization. Organization requires ground troops and follow-through. You can take an issue and blog it and YouTube it and MySpace it. But organizing requires much more stick-to-it-ive-ness.
I went to Haiti. There are food riots in Haiti. Seventy percent of the people make $1 a day or less. Sixty percent of the women are chronically malnourished. I was holding up 5-month-old babies who weigh 12 pounds. People are literally starving to death. That does not lend itself to instant mobilization. That’s different than a hot-button issue.
When I got back, I gave the story to Arianna Huffington, who put it on her Huffington Post blog. We got information in the trenches, and then she blogged it. The traditional media has still to catch on to Haiti. Between Iraq and Afghanistan and Hillary and Barack, they are obsessed with all that.
The 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity—that’s (a complex issue) not a personality around which you can build a big demonstration. That requires changing legislation. Fifty-five percent of the prison industrial complex is African-American. That requires ground troops, churches, civil rights organizations, political leaders. So it requires a different kind of struggle.
Do you see a twilight to the kind of personality-driven civil rights movements we have known up to now?
Let me tell you where the change takes place. There was a time when I was in school, it was illegal to be an NAACP member and teach school in the South. The teachers couldn’t speak out. Lawyers were limited to a court formality because they had to face judges and juries, almost all white. Only the black preacher was free to speak up without paying a certain kind of price.
Once we got the right to vote, those who used to be limited to a press conference could get into the legislative committee meeting, the city council, Springfield, Washington. The more outlets people have in the system, the less they protest outside, because they can get in. You hear where I’m coming from? That is the definition of success.
Where does Sen. Barack Obama fit in the history of the civil rights movement? Is he the culmination of that movement?
Today someone said to me, “You know, Barack is the first post-civil rights leader.” I said, “Really?” He said, “He’s not attached to those civil rights days.” I said, “He’s a direct descendant of it, a direct beneficiary of it!”
We went to Selma in 1965, white women couldn’t serve on juries, blacks couldn’t vote. Today here in Houston, I registered high school seniors; they can vote now.
Martin Luther King, locked out of the system, says he’s against the Vietnam War, almost alone. He gets dumped on by the press, the government, everybody. By 2008, you can win the nomination being against a war! Today, the anti-war movement is the mainstream, which is another victory for the continued struggle.
In 1984, my campaign for president, you know it took away the trauma, the idea of a black man running. In 2008, I woke up, and in Mississippi, where Medgar Evers was killed, you see whites voting for a black guy to be president. Men voting for a woman to be president. So Hillary and Barack become the conduits through which a new and more mature America expresses itself.
This is 43 years from Selma. Barack’s candidacy is an unbroken line from the blood of Selma. Dr. King talked about the snowcapped Rockies in his `63 speech. Well, we’ll be in Denver. Forty-three years later, here we are.
When you look back at your lifetime of crusading for civil rights, do you feel frustrated? In many ways, you’re having to fight many of the same battles today that you did years ago.
No, I am not frustrated. All these battles to even the playing field are eternal battles. The battles for peace are eternal battles.
I am impressed with the growth of America. I see a new and better America. There’s still an undercurrent of injustice. But we’re winning. When I think that my father had fewer rights on a military base than a Nazi POW, it’s unthinkable today. I was jailed trying to use a public library, a movie theater. We’re beyond that.
A black football coach for the Bears? Don’t take that lightly, my God. A black baseball coach in Houston? Houston! I was here with Dr. King in 1966, with Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin. We hit the stage, and they give Aretha flowers, and they put tear gas in the arena and we had to evacuate.
But how far has the country really moved? For example, African-American kids in school are three times more likely than whites to be expelled or suspended.
It’s an ebb and flow. It’s to and fro. But I’m impressed that many Americans are struggling to be better than they’ve ever been.
I think many Americans are fatigued with our past. They want to change. They want America to be better. And that’s why I say it’s our challenge, particularly the oppressed people, to get better, not bitter. When you look at the hardships, the disappointments, the contradictions, it’s easy to get bitter.
But often in our prayers, we ask God to free us up from bitterness or temptation to hate. That’s overcoming pain with faith.
That has been part of the Barack appeal, the attempt to lift us up by our spirits. To some people, that’s empty. But cynicism is a spirit and hope is a spirit. Cynicism paralyzes. Hope lifts.
So there is a lot of unfinished business with civil rights, but the point is, people want to do the business?
Dr. King said we fought to get freedom over indecency and barbarism. They were blocking school doors and putting dogs on people. There were many allies with us in the freedom movement, overcoming barbarity. When it came to the equality movement, they ceased to be allies, because they would not give up any of their privileges for equality.
When I look back at my life, I see victories. I see unfinished business, too—I’m not blind. I just know we have more tools with which to fight it, and we’ve got more allies. I see enough light to keep my flame of hope burning bright.
Blacks are not changing—whites are changing. White America is changing. Dr. King reached out, but he got rejected. The reach-out is not new. The reception is new, and getting better.